Sehnsucht: a longing for an unknown country

“Every man has a map in his heart of his own country, and the heart will never allow you to forget this map.” –Alexander McCalll Smith

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A couple of months ago, my husband, Matt, and I took a trip to Washington wine country. We left Seattle in the morning commute, crossed over Snoqualmie Pass into the rolling farmland of Eastern Washington, and arrived in Yakima before lunchtime. The small city isn’t exactly a resort town, but it’s set amongst twelve American Viticultural Areas and literally hundreds of vineyards. Once seen by urbanites as little more than apple orchards and po-dunkery, the Yakima Valley is becoming a seat of wine and craft brewing culture. On our first day there we tasted local hard cider and artisan cheese, visited a hops supplier and tested experimental brews, ate handmade asparagus tamales at a locally beloved hole-in-the-wall, and by four p.m. stood on a stone terrace overlooking orchards and vineyards as far as the eye could see with a glass of crisp rosé in hand. The aroma of hundreds of lavender bushes floated up on the hot air. It was like something from a dream, something, in fact, very like my own dream.

I can’t remember when it started. In some ways it seems it’s always been with me. When I envision paradise, I see cypress trees slicing skyward, red tiled roofs over stone walls, vineyards hemmed in by ancient hills that climb into the hazy distance. If I were granted one purely indulgent wish, I would ask to be there, tethered to that land in some tangible way, whether hiking to find remains of a Roman road, or pruning olive trees in a terraced garden, or sitting outside on a stone patio surrounded by pots of luscious basil, reading and astonished by beauty every time I looked up to see the fortified hills.

Frances Mayes did it–restored her villa, Bramasole, in the Tuscan countryside. Peter Mayle spent his Year in Provence. Movies like A Walk in the Clouds and French Kiss and Sting’s live concert in Tuscany are steeped now in my soul. I don’t know whether my Italian blood only needed these images and stories to awaken my own natal longing, or if their influence shaped my young imagination so thoroughly that I can’t remember a time this dream wasn’t inside me. Could there be there some genetic coding that hearkens to its birthplace? I don’t know, but this isn’t wanderlust. It’s the opposite—a gut level yearning for one place, for home in its purest sense: origin. I’m sure the Germans have a word for this strange alchemy of homesickness and farsickness. Perhaps it is sehnsucht, which, roughly translated, means craving and longing and nostalgia for an unidentifiable far-off country. Maybe for me, northern Italy and southern France are my Eden, my source, and so they are also my idea of heaven and the thing I’m trying to get back to.

In the Yakima Valley, sehnsucht washed over me. In Naches Heights, I felt echoes of Umbria. In downtown Yakima, the roofline of the old Masonic temple evoked Paris. At Hackett Ranch I imagined myself at a lavender farm in Provence. I began to wonder, What about here? Why not seek the dream in this place?

The valley is less than three hours away from where I live, with over 300 days of sun—healing for the rain-weary Seattleite. Buying land would be a cinch compared to the unfathomable complexities of international real estate acquisition. It would be so easy to get to know the people in the valley, build friendships and feel part of the community. By Sunday’s farmer’s market, we were already waving hello to people we’d met over the weekend: growers, craftsmen, and winemakers. On the other hand, flights to Europe are cost prohibitive all by themselves–and think of the language barriers! And, as Bridget likes to remind me whenever I bring up Tuscany, “Don’t forget about the scorpions!” Maybe Yakima could be the less sparkly solution to this longing I’ve carried with me all this time.

But I have to be realistic: it’s not Italy or France. Culturally, not even close. Most of the people we met grew up on the land—simple, hardworking folks growing fruit like their parents before them, ripping out acres of red delicious apple trees to replace with pink ladies, or nebbiolo grape vines as consumer trends change. There’s bluegrass music and hispanic day-laborers and working horse farms. This is agricultural Americana at its core. Familiar, not foreign. And maybe trying to force it into the mold of my European dream isn’t really fair. The valley allures on its own merit.

In the 2003 film version of Peter Pan, Mrs. Darling says to young Michael, “[Your father] has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.” “Where did he put them?” Michael asks. “He put them in a drawer,” Mrs. Darling answers. “And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer…He does. And that is why he is brave.” I’m in my mid-thirties now and I have two young children, a mortgage, a vegetable garden and kindred spirit friends raising their kids beside mine. There was a time when I could (and did) cash in a savings bond scholarship and hop a flight to Florence for spring break. Or buy a one-way ticket to Switzerland to live with intellectuals in the alps. Or take a job nannying in central London and vacation on the Riviera. Once, the idea of having my own bit of earth somewhere in Tuscany didn’t seem so out of reach. But it’s been ten years since I set foot on the Continent and now those dreams begin to feel like ghosts put away in a box. I wonder, as the highway of my life narrows with waning time and the off-ramps are fewer and farther between, will they only ever be dreams?

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It’s possible they might. But for right now I live in between times. It’s too soon yet to grieve the dream. When my kids are older and we have two incomes, who’s to say it couldn’t be realized in all its glory?—renting a Tuscan villa three months out of the year from which to write and rest and explore. But it may never happen. And in these years when I await the verdict, I don’t want to hold out for perfection in the future when goodness is available right now. Because taking hold of that goodness doesn’t deplete the possibility for more later. It may be just the opposite—the economy of joy is increase for spending.

To have discovered the valley so nearby that evokes so much of what I long for seems like a gift for the present. A shadow of the thing promised by my sehnsucht. A place on the outer fringes of the map on my heart of my own country.

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J.M. Roddy is a domestic creative, food enthusiast, and children’s author.

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